Trump gives GOP moderates ‘very helpful’ breathing room on abortion

June 18, 2024

Former President Trump is giving moderate GOP lawmakers some breathing room on the explosive issue of abortion, treading unusually carefully on a topic Democrats are trying to make a political liability for swing-district Republicans.

During a closed-door meeting with House GOP lawmakers last week, Trump urged Republicans to talk about abortion in a way that makes sense for their districts, saying they should discuss it “correctly,” according to a source in the room. The former president pushed the issue as a state’s-rights matter, backed exceptions for certain circumstances and dubbed the party’s stance on the topic as “common sense.”

The message jibes with Trump’s comments on abortion earlier this year, when he declared the fate of abortion should be left to individual states, declined to take a stance on a potential federal abortion ban and said he supports exceptions for cases involving rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger.

Trump’s advice last week gives Republicans running in districts President Biden won in 2020 — where Trump’s style often does them no favors — the greenlight to campaign on the issue in a way that caters best to their constituents.

“It’s very helpful,” one Biden-district Republican told The Hill of Trump’s message on abortion. “And it’s probably the most disciplined he’s been on any issue.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) — whose district broke for Biden by roughly 6 percentage points in 2020 — echoed that sentiment, calling Trump’s message “smart advice.

“What President Trump is saying, I believe, is reality, that I think that probably is helpful in the debates going into November,” he added in an interview with The Hill.

The political cover from Trump is a change from the typical dynamic moderate and swing-state Republicans have with the former president. Often, they spend time trying to distinguish themselves from Trump’s vengeful style and bombastic positions, while Democrats work hard to tie them to the former president.

Trump’s positions on abortion have shifted repeatedly over the years, from being for abortion rights decades ago to signing a letter in 2016 saying he would enact a 20-week abortion ban. Now, he is taking a position that minimizes political risk — and advocating that others do the same. 

“There was a very serious discussion about how Republicans are gonna talk about abortion in the upcoming election,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) told reporters after the meeting. “President Trump reiterated his perspective that this is a state issue. He thought that gave members who have different views on this issue in our conference an ability to really localize it rather than having to talk about it in the broadest of national terms.”

Abortion has become a top political challenge for Republicans since the Supreme Court eliminated a federal right to obtain early abortions with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision two years ago, resulting in new abortion bans in GOP-controlled states across the country.

Outrage over the decision — and the bans that followed — have resulted in a surge of voter enthusiasm on the Democratic side. Abortion, as an issue, was widely credited as a determining factor for Republican losses and under-performance in the 2022 midterms.

Trump alluded to those defeats during his meeting with House Republicans, saying it was an issue too important to ignore. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said Trump told the assembled lawmakers that abortion “cost us.”

Now, some GOP lawmakers are urging Republicans to recalibrate their messaging on the matter.

“The country needs to hear that Republicans support life, and support women,” Mace told reporters last week.

“It’s not just a purple-district issue,” she later added. “It’s an issue everywhere that people support common sense, a common-sense approach to abortion.”

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), who is on the more hard-line conservative side of the House GOP, said Trump is not concerned with the intricacies of abortion-related policies like access to drugs that help induce abortion.

“He’s not getting in the details, and he said we shouldn’t either,” Norman said.

Democrats are hammering Republicans on the issue of abortion. This month alone, Senate Democratic leaders have staged votes on protecting IVF and contraception, forcing Republicans to go on record blocking the bills. Republicans contend the measures were overbroad and contained “poison pill” provisions.

“Most House Republicans have endorsed a nationwide abortion ban with zero exceptions. And now Senate Republicans have blocked a bill that would protect IVF nationwide,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote on the social platform X. “They’re dead set on taking away our reproductive freedoms. We can’t let them.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are taking a more hands-off approach to abortion policies with federal legislation as well as in campaign messaging. Earlier this month, the House GOP released a funding bill that did not include a provision to nullify a Biden administration rule allowing mifepristone to be sold in retail pharmacies and dispensed by mail — a policy rider that caused intraparty divides last year. The National Defense Authorization Act, however, passed with an amendment attached that would block a Biden administration policy reimbursing service members for travel expenses incurred to obtain an abortion.

Bacon said Trump’s comments on abortion reflect the “reality” of the situation: that Republicans will only be able to enact significant change on abortion at the state level because of the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate.

“You’re not gonna get anything done, very little done, at the federal level with the filibuster there, and that’s just the reality,” he said. “Very few people have said that. And so the president is, I think, very smart, and showing that this is the truth.”

“It’s largely not a federal issue because it’s very hard to get anything done at the federal level,” he continued. “So it really is a state issue.”

In a sense, Trump’s position on abortion and Republican embrace of it shows the GOP walking back its anti-abortion stance in order to win elections. After years of campaigning on overturning Roe, few are calling for federal bans, despite previous Republican-controlled Houses passing 20-week abortion bans three times in past years.

Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), though, argued that Trump’s position and advice to Republican members does not conflict with the party’s core anti-abortion position.

“We don’t sacrifice any core principle,” Johnson said. “We all believe in the sanctity of human life. And every one has to go to their districts and explain it in their own way. And President Trump encouraged everyone to do that.”

Johnson laid out a similar argument as Bacon, talking about Trump’s position in terms of political practicalities rather than principles.

“Before you can have political consensus on what’s been a difficult issue, you have that cultural consensus,” Johnson said. “And right now, we just don’t have the numbers in Congress to do anything on a federal level.”